Tragedy struck just as Ira Birnbaum and his wife prepared to set sail along Alaska’s scenic Inside Passage on Norwegian Cruise Line.
“The day before we were scheduled to fly to Seattle to board the cruise, I got word that my mother was gravely ill and placed in hospice,” recalls Birnbaum, who works for the federal government and lives in Annandale, Va. “The following day, the day of our scheduled cruise departure, she died.”
When Birnbaum told United Airlines about his mother’s sudden passing, it offered him its condolences and a credit for a future flight. It also waived his ticket-change fee. But when he informed his cruise line, it wasn’t so generous.
“NCL refused to give me a refund, other than port taxes,” he says. “They wouldn’t even offer a credit toward a future cruise. I called back several times in efforts to get more reasonable customer service representatives or speak to a supervisor, and I wasn’t even allowed to speak to a supervisor. Needless to say, I was stunned by their callous, insensitive attitude and outraged by their disgusting policy.”
You’d assume that a cruise line would either refund a fare or offer a credit when there’s a death in the family. Not necessarily. Some companies maintain strict no-refund rules, while other cruise lines claim to be more compassionate. But it’s almost impossible to know how strict — or compassionate — until the unthinkable happens and a close relative dies before you’re scheduled to set sail.
AnneMarie Mathews, a spokeswoman for NCL, said that refund requests are reviewed on a “case by case” basis, but that the company’s refund rules are clear: Any cancellations made within 14 days or less of the sailing date are subject to a 100 percent cancellation fee. A request for an exception must be made to the company in writing. “In the instance of Mr. Birnbaum, we are very sorry for his loss,” she said. “However, we have not received a written request from him.”
Birnbaum says that the cruise line never informed him of its refund procedure.
Although each cruise line handles credits or refunds in its own way, they do have uniform paperwork requirements, according to Michael McGarry, a spokesman for Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade organization. “A passenger who can’t make a cruise because of a family emergency should always notify the line and insurer of the cancellation in writing, explain the circumstances, and provide any supporting information, such as a death certificate.”
But beneath the surface, there are forces at work that a traveler doesn’t see. Sales of insurance and vacation “protection” are thought to be a significant and growing portion of a cruise line’s revenue. In last year’s annual report, NCL didn’t break out its earnings from insurance sales, instead reporting $754 million in onboard and “other” revenue, an $82 million increase from a year before. That’s a little less than half the $1.8 billion in ticket revenue it reported in 2013.
Mathews says that NCL “strongly” encourages its customers to buy insurance “so that they will be covered” if there’s a death in the family before a cruise.